The NT book of Hebrews was written anonymously only in the sense that the author’s name does not appear in the text, although he would have been known to the original audience. Here is what can be inferred about the author from the document itself:
o He was familiar with his readers (5:12; 6:9-10; 10:34; 13:7, 18-25).
o He and his readers were acquainted with Timothy (13:23).
o He was not a personal disciple of Jesus (2:3).
o He was familiar with the Levitical ritual of the Jewish temple (5:1-4; 7:5, 27-28; etc.).
o He was well versed in the Jewish scriptures, particularly the LXX Greek version (1:5-13; 2:6-8; etc.).
o He wrote with a high quality of literary Greek.
One of the most often-cited statements about this enigmatic writer is from the 3rd-century theologian Origen: “But who it was that really wrote the epistle, God only knows” (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.25.14). While this sentiment is no doubt true, the entirety of Origen’s statement, along with his other writings (e.g. De Principiis 1.2.5; 3.1.10; 4.1.13), attribute authorship to the apostle Paul. Origen’s uncertainty is not necessarily in reference to authorship but rather to the identity of the author’s scribe – the one who actually put reed pen to papyrus on his behalf.
Who Wrote the Book of Hebrews?
Paul the apostle is a strong possibility. The oldest extant evidence on the authorship of Hebrews comes from Clement of Alexandria near the close of the 2nd century, attributing it to Paul. The identification goes back even earlier to Clement’s teacher, Pantaenus (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6.14; cf. 5.11; 6.13, 25). The most primitive surviving text of Hebrews is part of the early 3rd-century Chester Beatty papyrus (P46), wherein Hebrews is placed in the Pauline corpus between Romans and 1 Corinthians.1 Not only is it treated as Pauline in the oldest surviving manuscripts, its inclusion among Paul’s letters has extensive attestation.2 In fact, Hebrews was commonly attributed to Paul between the 3rd and 19th centuries, and the translators of the KJV labeled it: “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.”3 The vast majority of modern scholars, however, dogmatically reject Hebrews as a document written by Paul because of its anonymity, differences in language and style, absences of key Paulinisms, theological variations, and historical positioning.4
Luke the physician is another authorial candidate. Clement of Alexandria and Origen attest to Luke’s involvement in composing Hebrews.5 Its purer Greek resembles Luke’s writing, and there are verbal and stylistic similarities to Luke-Acts.6 It was customary for Luke to write anonymously, and he was well acquainted with Timothy (cf. Acts 16:1-17; 20:4-6). Being Greek, he would have been more familiar with the LXX version than with the Hebrew. But the strongest objection is that the author of Hebrews seems to write from a Jewish perspective, whereas Luke appears to have been non-Jewish.
Another possibility is Silvanus, seeing that Hebrews also has a literary correspondence to 1 Peter. Silvanus participated in the writing of 1 Peter (cf. 5:12), and the apostle Peter was not included among those for whom Christ’s testimony was confirmed by eyewitnesses (Heb. 2:3). Both Hebrews and 1 Peter are steeped in the LXX, and Silvanus (a.k.a. Silas) was associated with Timothy (Acts 16:1-17; 17:14; 18:5). Moreover, Silvanus’ connection with Jerusalem (Acts 15:22) would potentially have familiarized him with the temple rituals. Although Silvanus made a significant contribution to NT writings (Acts 15:22-32; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 1 Pet. 5:12), his literary proficiency seems to be ignored or underappreciated by most scholars.
Other suggestions include Apollos, Aristion (an elder mentioned by Papias), Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Epaphras, Mary the mother of Jesus, Philip, Priscilla and/or Aquila, Stephen, et al.7 A female author is ruled out by the statement in 11:32, “And what more shall I say? for the time will fail me for recounting …”8 The participle diēgoumenon (“recounting”) is masculine in gender, implicitly identifying the writer as male. As for the other proposals, in the absence of any extant writings from them to compare with Hebrews, the case for each is much more circumstantial and speculative.
Plurality of Authors?
Almost all debates about the authorship of Hebrews proceed under the assumption that it was penned by a solitary writer. If, however, the document betrays the compositional influence of multiple persons, arguments pertaining to a lone author (e.g. structure, style, vocabulary, etc.) significantly diminish in persuasive value.
Plural authorship was not uncommon in ancient times, and the two letters embedded in the book of Acts provide a simple model of comparison. The letter in Acts 15:23-29 is from multiple persons and is written entirely in the first person plural (“we”) form of address. The letter in Acts 23:25-30 is from an individual and is written entirely in the first person singular (“I”) form of address.
In the vast majority of extant multi-sender papyrus letters from antiquity, first person terminology is entirely plural, demonstrating that the responsibility for the content rests equally with each correspondent.9 However, some of these ancient letters (e.g. P. Oxy. 1158, 3094, 3313, P. Mur. 42) alternate between “we” and “I,” indicating that one of the senders is the primary spokesman or leader of the group who at times refers only to himself.
While the popular assumption is that Hebrews is the product of a solitary penman, is it plausible that multiple persons could have been involved? Divine inspiration notwithstanding, this is the focus of the next post.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Hebrews also follows Romans in a Syrian canon of around AD 400 and in six minuscule manuscripts (see B. M. Metzger and B. D. Ehrman, The Text of the NT [4th ed.] 55 n. 7).
2 The most ancient manuscripts including Hebrews in the Pauline corpus are Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Vaticanus. For further documentary evidence, see B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary 591-92; G. Zuntz, Text of the Epistles 15-16; and D. Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection 7-27.
3 This can be traced back to the title in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate: Epistola Pauli ad Hebraeos. For a list of similarities between Hebrews and Paul’s writings, see D. Guthrie, NT Introduction 722-23; and N. R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today 20-22.
4 For a summary of arguments for and against Paul’s authorial role, see D. Guthrie, NT Introduction 688-98; N. R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today 20-27; and G. W. Wade, NT History 304-307.
5 Clement of Alexandria claimed that Paul wrote Hebrews in the Hebrew language and that Luke translated it into Greek (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14). Origen reported that some in his day maintained that Luke “wrote” Hebrews (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14), but it is uncertain whether this refers to authorship or to transcription.
6 See C. M. P. Jones, “Hebrews and Lucan Writings,” in Studies in the Gospels 113-43. T. Rees observes: “He [the author of Hebrews] writes Gr[eek] with a purity of style and vocabulary to which the writings of L[uke] alone in the NT can be compared” (ISBE 2:1357).
7 See D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo, and L. Morris, Introduction to the NT 396-97; also C. Holladay, Critical Introduction to the NT 639-42.
8 Scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
9 See S. Byrskog, “Co-senders” 233-36; J. Murphy-O’Connor, Letter-Writer 18-19; M. Prior, Letter-Writer 38-39; A. von Roon, Authenticity 89-90.
Related Posts: Plural Authorship of Hebrews Part 2, Anti-Conservative Presuppositions (Part 3), Introducing the Book of Hebrews
Image credit: https://regenerationandrepentance.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/130117060558133207.jpg